Family lore says he once faced off with a Bengal tiger (and was left unscathed); that he landed a B-24 Liberator with two failed props, halfway across the Atlantic, in a wall of fog; that he had wrestled down an escaped convict who hijacked his car.
We never hear these tales firsthand, of course. They are locked up with the rest of his past in the vault of his broad chest. The chest of a man who hauled lumber for two decades. Broad, even now, frail as he is—almost a cliché in his hospital bed.
A long time ago he was a storyteller—a keeper of the past. But time and loss have silenced him.
His sweetheart died in 1965. Agnes was 16 when he began his quiet courtship in a rowboat off the North Shore. She was nearly 40 when lung cancer ended their happy marriage. Agnes had never smoked, but these things happen sometimes.
Their six children remain, a testament to affection. But the loss left an aching void he was desperate to fill. A neighbour widow moved in three months later. They had made new vows in a Waikiki wedding chapel, and she has since worked tirelessly to erase his past and reign in his present. But though she has burned his letters, locked away his journals and had the dead woman’s name removed from the tattoo on his forearm, she is contending with a memory, and Allan’s is incorruptible.
She presides over his hospital visiting hours, but for once we grandkids needn’t wait for a rare invitation to see our grandpop. The ward is our access point. We keep coming to call, hoping for those blissful gaps—when she goes to make a call, get a cup of tea, walk out for air—and in her wake he reveals cheeky snippets of those ancient tales that have only ever been hearsay to us.
Then one blessed night she is absent. And, old as he is, he is very present. An intuitive twinkle in his eye meets the one in mine as he signals me closer. I close the curtain around his bed, suddenly complicit in breaking an unspoken rule.
He parts his cracked lips and begins with the War.
Ceylon. A bomber pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, he and his crew had been thrashing through swaths of jungle for days and finally bivouacked in an interior village. A local child disappeared a few days prior and nearby trees bore telltale scars from giant claws. No one questioned the child’s demise and all slept fitfully in their stilted huts—little more than gazebos with hammocks, exposed—finding plenty to fear in the cacophony of nighttime sounds.
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